STATUS SYMBOL: New research indicates that the brain can encode a value for social status and that it can compare the reward from being socially important with winning money. Image: © ISTOCKPHOTO/ANJA PETERNELJ
New research shows for the first time that we process cash and social values in the same part of our brain (the striatum)—and likely weigh them against one another when making decisions. So what's more important—money or social standing? It might be the latter, according to two new studies published in the journal Neuron.
"Our study shows that both behaviorally and in the brain, people place an importance on social status," says Caroline Zink, a postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Md., and co-author of one of studies. "It's hugely influential even [when we're not] in direct competition with someone else."
Zink's NIMH team and their counterparts at Japan's National Institute for Physiological Sciences (NIPS) used different methods to determine that we process social values in the striatum, which had previously been tapped as our brain's monetary reward center. This is key, researchers say, because it provides evidence that our brains consider a good rep—as well as cash—to be rewarding and worth considering as we mull our options. In addition, they note that our brains likely weigh the benefits of each against one another (because they are processed in the same place) as we make up our minds.
"Although we intuitively know that a good reputation makes us feel good, the idea that a good reputation is a 'reward' had long been just an assumption without scientific proof," says Norihiro Sadato, a neuroscience professor at NIPS and a co-author of the Japanese study.
Sadato and colleagues conducted fMRI scans of the brains of 19 subjects while they engaged in two different exercises. The first task was a simple game in which participants had to choose one of three cards in the hope of winning a cash prize. In the second game, fictional evaluators appraised volunteers' characters based on the results of personality trait questionnaires. The researchers found that the striatum activated in response to high and low appraisals (but did not perk up to more neutral comments); it also responded to monetary wins and losses but was quiet if a player broke even.
"The implication of our study is that the different types of the reward are coded by the same currency system,'' says Sadato, "enabling the comparison between them."
In the NIMH study, researchers scanned the brains of 72 volunteers as they attempted to earn money in a computer game. During play, the researchers occasionally revealed how supposed competitors (who, unbeknownst to them, were fake) were faring. The scientists created an arbitrary ranking system of the real and faux players in which some of the bogus gamers appeared to perform better—and others worse—than the real ones. The participants were told that their status in the game had no effect on how much money they could win, but that earning more money could boost their rank.
"We found that the brain reacts very strongly to the other players and specifically the status of the other players," Zink says. "We weren't expecting that profound a response," she adds, noting that the subjects seemed to be concerned with the hierarchy within the game even when it was of no consequence to how much money they could make.
According to Zink, the striatum became just as animated when players were given a shot at improving their social standing as it did when they won a buck. And that wasn't the only indicator that they cared about how others perceived them. She says another brain region (the medial prefrontal cortex) involved in sizing up others went wild when players were shown photos of competitors who outperformed them.
Other findings of the studies: brain areas that process emotional pain (the amygdala and posterior cingulate) lit up when players failed to answer questions that inferior competitors had aced. The researchers speculate that this is because they were worried it would diminish their reputations as superior players. They found that the brain's emotional centers were most active in competitive players who messed up, indicating that they were so concerned with their reputations that they became stressed out when their reps were threatened.
"Our position in social hierarchies strongly influences motivation as well as physical and mental health," said Thomas Insel, director of the NIMH, in a press statement. He notes that this new insight into how the brain processes social standing may have important public health consequences, possibly even paving the way to new stress-reduction therapies.